Reanimating Detroit

A new book offers some decent ideas for revitalizing the Motor City—but it doesn't go far enough.


Detroit: Three Pathways to Revitalization, by Lewis D. Solomon, Transaction, 147 pages, $34.95.

The metropolis of Detroit has received considerable attention lately, little of it sanguine. A sampling of recent titles includes Escape from Detroit, Lost Detroit, What Doomed Detroit, Detroit Disassembled, and Detroit Breakdown. The once mighty Motor City has seen its population tumble from 1.86 million in 1950 to an estimated 700,000 today. Lewis Solomon—author of another recent book, Detroit: Three Pathways to Revitalization—estimates that 500,000 Detroiters inhabit the lower socioeconomic strata.

Solomon, a research professor at George Washington University Law School, aims to recognize and catalog "Detroit's challenges." The three pathways he endorses are a rightsized municipal government, a resurgent private sector fueling economic growth, and a grassroots alternative economy built on "community-oriented entities" such as cooperatives and small-scale entrepreneurship.

But before he gets to his solutions, he outlines the city's problems. His first chapter's candid recital of the challenges facing Detroit is enough to terminally discourage the most sanguine reader.

Precipitous population losses. A shrinking tax base. Too few jobs. Impoverished families. An uneducated, unskilled workforce—47 percent of the city's adults lack basic reading and writing skills, even though about half of those 47 percent have high school diplomas. White and then middle-class black flight to the suburbs, beginning with the 1967 race riots. Unsalable homes in fractured neighborhoods, with 79,725 vacant buildings and over 100,000 parcels of vacant land. Deserted office buildings and destroyed factories. Crumbling infrastructure. Shrinking and unreliable public services. Wretched ghetto schools. Periodically looted public pension funds that have become an "enormous and crushing" cost burden. A municipal debt of 32 times the city's total net assets. Despair, drugs, crime, trash, and graffiti.

At this point, the reader might well decide to move on to another book. But Solomon follows quickly with a second chapter highlighting the city's assets. These include good air service, fine downtown hotel accommodations and restaurants, modern football and baseball stadia, and a riverwalk that "serves as a magnet for those who want to stroll, jog, or bike in a park setting." Or, possibly, to run for their lives.

There are also reputable colleges, medical centers, the Detroit Institute for the Arts, and yes, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. As Reason's Nick Gillespie once observed, "If the top three answers to the question "What's great about the place?" include 'a world class symphony orchestra,' you're smack dab in the middle of a current or future ghost town."

But Solomon soldiers on, and it's worth staying with him as he seeks evidence for the maxim "in disintegration lies opportunity." He presents a detailed account of the various plans presented by a procession of public and civic entities to address the city's financial stability, launch a "Detroit Works Project," begin a "New Economic Initiative," and so on. While each of these has done some good work, none has been able to enlist the degenerate mechanism of municipal government in service of a promising agenda.

Mayor Dave Bing, a Hall of Fame basketball legend elected in 2009 to succeed 24 years of thoroughly irresponsible, incompetent, and corrupt municipal leadership, tackled the task with courage and enthusiasm. His guiding strategy was to "rightsize" the city—not the city government, as Solomon recommends, but the actual city itself. Bing set out to concentrate its shrunken population in a smaller number of viable neighborhoods, while demolishing enough of the remaining area to create an "urban prairie" of grasslands, reforestation, and rainwater retention ponds. Those in the disfavored areas would face reduced city services (no street lights, etc.) until they gave in and moved.

The mayor's hope was that the surviving viable neighborhoods would attract middle-class urban pioneers. He acknowledged that public safety (police and fire) was the top priority, followed by a productive school system. Despite his good intentions, Bing's approval rating sank as low as 14 percent; he fled the office in 2013. By that time the city was in the hands of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who in February 2014 (after this book had gone to press) filed the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy petition.

Solomon devotes a revealing chapter to Detroit's wretchedly unproductive public school system. The statewide Education Achievement System, launched in 2012, targets six city high schools and nine elementary schools, together having 10,000 students. The plan also created nine "quasi-charter schools" with 2,800 students in which the principal, not the school board bureaucracy, in charge. There is no mention, however, of creating real charter schools or, better yet, paying pupils' tuition for the public or private school or program of their choice.

One bright spot in this recitation comes when Solomon discusses the private sector's civic leadership. A host of corporations seem committed to making central Detroit a tech services enterprise zone. The leader and visionary of this strategy has been Daniel Gilbert, CEO of the nation's leading online mortgage lender, Quicken Loans. Aided by $47 million in state tax credits and the availability of bargain-basement office space, Gilbert and his affiliated firms have brought 6,000 jobs to central Detroit.

The trouble is that almost all of those jobs have gone to non-residents of the city. That's because the jobs require skills and work habits in short supply among the 174,000 Detroiters aged 17 to 64.

And therein lies the most wrenching dilemma of revitalizing Detroit. Those low-skill working-age people, most of them failed by the government school system, somehow have to make themselves employable in a new economy or else choose between perpetually gaming the welfare system or migrating from the city they have known.

Solomon is not unaware of this dilemma. He considers the potential of the "creative class" of artsy types to pump new life into sinking neighborhoods, but he realistically stops well short of seeing it as a major contributor to revitalization. Similarly, he sees community gardens on vacant land, "small worker owned enterprises," other "decentralized, smaller scale institutions," and even a local currency system as means for rebuilding a lost sense of community. He offers "low odds" for the success of any kind of metropolitan planning but he concludes that urban agriculture, leading to a "more self-sufficient, parallel political economy, could serve as a major engine for Detroit's revitalization." Seems unlikely.

Not that Solomon's third pathway isn't an attractive vision. It is. Anything that tends to recreate a functioning civil society of shared values, mutual concern, and self-help is a worthy goal. The hard part is creating the substrate of earned life support of the citizens, without which their citizenship is often reduced to continually voting for subsidies.

What is disappointing about Solomon's prescriptions for reversing Detroit's plight is his apparent unfamiliarity with the scholarship and practice of undoing the malign results of Too Much Bad Government. For instance, the Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine, has a Local Government Center that has advocated urban revival strategies for four decades, all based on the idea of reducing suffocating government regulation, scrapping crony deal-making, letting markets begin to work, and giving empowered residents realistic opportunities to improve their city and their prospects.

A real revitalization plan might entail turning Detroit into a contract city that outsources its activities to private enterprise—or, alternately, decentralizing city governance to semi-autonomous neighborhood assemblies. It could mean giving every kid a voucher for any of a wide range of educational programs, public or private. Selling off municipal assets such as the city-owned art collection and Detroit Power and Light. Deregulating enterprises large and small, from manufacturing and department stores to street vendors and jitneys. Replacing the byzantine zoning bylaws with a Houston-style set of covenants and performance standards. Converting city worker pension plans to defined contribution plans, thus preventing the city's crushing burden of pension debt from becoming still worse. Establishing a strong policy in support of almost any kind of civil society activity, even those that threaten the livelihoods of politicians and municipal unions. Solomon does discuss privatization of DP&L and the municipal airport, but his book lacks enthusiasm for the more aggressive libertarian agenda.

The foregoing is just a quick sampler. If you reject such ideas, your two alternatives are to be a perpetual subsidy-supported metropolis constantly succumbing to decay or a gated urban gentry zone surrounded by desolation and a sullen, unproductive, excluded population.

Solomon's slim volume is a concise and well-documented assessment of Detroit's recent history and its problems and assets. There's nothing wrong with its three "pathways to revitalization." What it lacks is a grander vision of freedom and opportunity.

Contributing Editor John McClaughry, former president of the Ethan Allen Institute, is the author of "Recycling Declining Neighborhoods: Give the People a Chance" (Urban Lawyer, Spring 1978). As a Detroit native, he is concerned about being recalled.